Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Road to Babel

It's Saturday and I'm going to be waxing poetic again. This time, it's stream-of-consciousness mind-dumping. Enjoy, or not.

The Game of Life

Every so often you have to take a step back from the daily grind and consider your position in the world. I've done this a few times during my career.

After a "checking in" manager discussion at the University of Minnesota in 1997, my conclusion was that I had been grossly undervalued in my last review. The solution was to strike out on my own, finally, for a job in the private sector. So I fell into my first post-University job earning twice what I got as a full-time member of the U of M Web Team.

I think I stuck around there for about 1.5 years. It wasn't a bad gig, but for whatever reason I really wanted to move up. When people made bad decisions, I wanted to be able to veto them or force a reevaluation rather than sitting by as projects failed. At the time, it seemed like management was the only path I could take, so I took some of the requisite courses, involved myself in more meetings and discussions, and generally tried to unofficially steer various projects in directions I thought would be more successful. Finally, I expressed my interest in moving into the management chain. "We're sure you'd be entirely capable, but we don't think it would be good for the team if you were leading folks who had been here much longer." Great. Age descrimination. So what if I was 23...I was fucking right, and I could have handled the job. Time to jump ship.

Thus began my dark foray into consulting. I hooked up with a local firm, consulting at a large Manufacturing and Mining company in Minnesota. Talk about stooges. These guys didn't know which was was up. They had some gigantic CORBA-based back-end for their product "store" they wanted to wire up to an ATG Dynamo front-end (which I *still* get job opportunities for). It was slow. They couldn't figure out why. Oh, is it a problem that all our web services, which are based on one end of the city, need to call back to a CORBA server on the other end of the city for ever damn field? Nah, it couldn't be that. I think we need more hardware. Probably about a month before my contract ended, I got tired of arguing the case. BAIL.

At this point, I think I just got tired of trying. I landed a comfy job as some sort of Java EE architect, and never actually did any real work. I lead a team of two, provided some basic architectural guidance (which was probably wrong, I was totally disinterested now), and things moved along reasonably well. Unfortunately, instead of hooking my wagon to a gravy train, I ended up with the Donner Party. About nine months after coming on board, the company crumbled under a high-level management embezzling scam, and the remaining employees started to cannibalize one another. I was laid off.

This was a rough time for everyone. It was 2001, and the shit was starting to hit the fan. Of course "me and my friends" all saw this coming...the nonsense prices people were paying for bullshit companies, the SuperBowl spots for web sites we'd never heard of and had no intention of using...all of it added up to a big fat crash. Not a great time to fall out of a job. Luckily, I had some old friends pulling for me.


Enter Kelly Nawrocke. Kelly and I had worked for a while at the University, on the Web Team. Kelly was never really devoted to the position...while I was desperately fiddling with the latest stupid AWT GUI they'd tasked me to write for no apparent reason, Kelly would be toying with a digital theremin, echoing sci-fi whines and whistles all the way down the hall. I sometimes hated his flippancy, but I sure wouldn't have shared an office with anyone else. Anyway, Kelly and I had been out of touch for a few years when started my Java EE architect job. While working there, I started studying Chinese "just because" and ran into Kelly on the U of M campus. After describing the work I was doing, Kelly replied with five words that have weighed on my conscience ever since, and are probably responsible for where I am now:

"I expected better from you."

Of course he said it with a smile. He was joking around, probably poking fun at my nonchalance about that EE job. But shit, he was right. What the hell was I doing with my life? Is this what I wanted to do?

So the bottom fell out and I needed a job. Kelly came to the rescue, getting me an interview and then vouching for me at another local shop. This time, it was a spin off of another Minnesota chemical company, building Java-based (but not necessarily EE-based) storefronts for both the original company and new ones interested in the same service. And this was probably a couple months before I would have had to bail on a mortgage and start over. Kelly really came to the rescue.

The new place paid pretty well, but it was totally doomed. I got there well after the happy times, when execs would fly off to Rome for a business lunch with prospects and "hired gun" consultants would organize daily poker games while they waited for work. When I arrived, we were heads-down working on stuff, sometimes late into the evening.

I think this job really started to sculpt where I would go in the future. I started out as just another "senior software engineer" in a company full of "senior software engineers". I helped build out a few apps, did a whole crapload of catch-up learning on the latest web and enterprise frameworks, and generally found the whole experience really enlightening. Sure, it wasn't the most compelling technology, but it was a fair day's work and a great team to hang out with. So I was reasonably happy.

A Return to Creative Exploration

At some point, they decided to look into a new suite of software from TIBCO. The managers-of-the-day had decided that it was foolish to always be building our own toolchain, workflows, portals, and messaging tiers and mandated that we start using TIBCO's suite of COTS products instead. A couple folks started to play with the workflow engine. Others got to look at the messaging tier. Me, I got the portal. Yick.

The portal, at the time, was a badly stitched-together collection of damn near every open source Java project. There was Apache stuff in there, Sun stuff, arbitrary third-party projects...a whole mess of them. Several were not properly attributed...and none of them came with source. I was forced to actually unpack and decompile pieces just to figure out what version of Apache commons it was running or which version of Velocity they had included. It was a bloody nightmare, but actually a hell of a fun puzzle to put together.

The end result was that we had the ability to run the portal on servers of our choosing, largely because I did the late-night homework to figure out what it actually used. So we largely disassembled the TIBCO suite and put it back together in a way that actually made sense for our app. It worked.

But remember I said this company was doomed. No amount of portal-wrangling was going to save it, so eventually it got absorbed back into its parent company, several million dollars poorer. Most of the staff were laid off or left, but those of us "real employees" got introduced back into the matrix. And I was in corporate stooge hell once again. Sure, I stuck around for a bit...I'm not one to jump ship at the drop of a hat. But a few quarters later, after no bonuses, no pay increases, and our numbers slowly dwindling under increasing was time to bail again.

Never Give Up Hope

Oddly enough, it was my old consulting friends that bailed me out. They had a gig with a government services consulting operation out in northern Virginia. I probably wouldn't have considered it if it were just a straight-up hourly consulting gig. But this one was contract-to-hire, with six months commuting to the DC area. I was intrigued, and signed on.

Here I found a brand new project. I arrived at perhaps the perfect time (or as perfect as it can get). They had just spent a couple *years* assembling a set of requirements documents for a gigantic new project, a piece of software intended to replace the key mainframe-based database that powered a multi-BILLION-dollar US government program. And the guv had just recently signed off on the requirements and funded three years of development. Basically a clean slate as far as the software went.

I was just hired on as an extra hand, but it quickly became apparent they needed a lot more than that. The design was flimsy at best...the folks in charge had a general idea of the technology needed to make it work, but they'd obviously never done this before. What's worse, many of them didn't seem to have the analytical skills necessary to make this project succeed. So I was presented with a choice. I could either toe the line and let those in charge make bad decisions...or I could stand up and say "you know what, you're wrong...and I'm going to prove it." I chose the latter.

Let's fast-forward about a year. My tour of duty in Virginia had long since been over, and I was now working as the on-site lead at the Fed's office in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was back home, I was busing to work, and I was in charge of the leading edge of the app, where we were just a few months away from going to production. I had basically taken over the entire architect role by now. The original build and deployment process were irreparably broken; I rewrote them in a 36-hour, three-day epic battle with Ant. The SCM workflow was useless, focusing on tagging what was currently in a given environment and moving those tags around; I replaced it with version numbers, release schedules, and tags and branches for actual project snapshots. And the production environment was a total wreck. I worked with the highly-competant guv IT staff to produce a ground-up automated setup and deployment script; they could now take a machine from bare server to fully-operational production box in about 20 minutes, including EE server installs, EE server and Apache configuration, and application staging and deployment. All by running one command.

We went live in October of 2004. A multi-million-dollar, 750kloc, fully "Java EE" project, deployed on time, under budget, and without any production snags. Yes, my friends, it can be done. Yes, you did it wrong.

Given that success, I think it was reasonable that I stuck around for another couple years. I became the lead architect for the project, guiding additional feature work, spinning off a subset of the application into a framework for future projects, and generally acting as part of the guv's team, rather than as an outside consultant. Things were pretty good...I had the run of the show.

Never Get Comfortable

Why did I leave?

"I expected better from you."

It was too comfortable. I started to realize that I was getting soft. I stopped tracking the latest web and persistence frameworks. I stopped caring about the fate of the project, since we'd largely automated it into a self-sufficient dynamo. I got tired of vetoing decisions...tired of calling idiots idiots and dealing with the fallout. I got 5/5 on my reviews in all but one area: interpersonal relationships...I made one dude cry because he restarted the UAT environment without asking me, and I had to explain to the guv why their server was down. It wasn't fun anymore.

Enter JRuby.

Find Something You Love

I started working casually on JRuby in about 2004, shortly after that big production release. I'd arranged to make a trip out to the home office in Tyson's Corner, VA, so I could attend RubyConf 2004 in Reston. It was Kelly Nawrocke who had turned me on to Ruby, even though I'd never actually looked at the language or written anything in it. Kelly was working in New York City, and promised to join me at the conference. While there, I saw David Heinemeier Hansson present Rails publicly for the first time, Koichi Sasada unveil his work on YARV, and meet a number of already-old-school Rubyists who thought they'd found the answer to all life's problems. But I wasn't really stricken by any of them. What struck me most was that without even knowing Ruby, I could look at their code and their slides and actually understand what was going on. I was hooked.

Naturally, being stuck on the then-crufty Java platform, I needed an in. So I started poking around to see if there might be a Ruby implementation on the JVM. It turned out JRuby had already existed for a couple years and my old U of MN Web Team coworker Tom Enebo was the current project lead.

Isn't it funny how fate works sometimes? I end up in a series of progressively more-challenging jobs because of a well-respected friend's offhand comment. I stumble upon JRuby where another respected coworker is lead developer. Weird. I say, I only casually contributed to JRuby for about a year, but around the summer of 2005 I really started to take an interest. I think I'd reached a tipping point, where I understood enough of JRuby to make larger changes, and I'd become bored enough with my daily job to start working on night projects. I rejiggered the interpreter, hoping to move it toward a stackless design. And what do you know, it worked. I went to RubyConf 2005 and presented JRuby for the first time, running "fib" recursively to 100_000 with ease and showing how basic functions all worked great in JRuby. It was a lot of fun. And damn was that interpreter slow. But it really planted the seed in me.

Hell Breaks Loose

Over the next year, the shit hit the fan. Around January 2006, we got IRB working. About a month later, apps like Rake and RubyGems started to come online. Ola Bini came on the project around then and helped get them fully working. Then we heard from Tim Bray that he could spare a few Sun machines for us to work on, and if we got Rails running by JavaOne there could be bigger things in store. We did...and were hired four months later by Sun to work on JRuby full time. Since then we've had JRuby 1.0 and 1.1 releases, numerous production JRuby on Rails deployments, a new compiler and "generally better" performance than other impls. And today, we're one of the best options for deploying Rails, with ever-improving performance, native threading, and a great software stack backing us up.

Now it's time to take a step back and examine where we really are. JRuby, by most accounts, is fighting a war on two fronts.

Fighting on Two Fronts

On the JVM side, there's a renewed interest in languages. Where two years ago JRuby was really the only big language story (or at least the only one getting press), now both Groovy and Scala are talking about how they're "just as good" or "better than" Ruby. And in many cases, they're right...Groovy still integrates better with Java and Scala mops the floor with both JRuby and Groovy in the performance arena. So no matter what success we've had with JRuby, there's a constant arms race going on. We need to demonstrate features to compare with Scala (or evangelism to show that Ruby still has an edge). We'll trade performance back-and-forth with Groovy (who now have really decent performance in 1.6...many kudos to them). And Jython is coming online, already performing better than C Python with many, many enhancements yet to be made. So JRuby's got a tough fight on the JVM to remain one of the lead competitors. Or is it just a part of a big happy family?

On the Ruby side of the world, situations have changed just as drastically. In 2006, when JRuby was starting to run basic Rails apps, still deep in compatibility hell, and only beginning to look at performance, there were still really only two implementations: C Ruby (MRI) and JRuby. Now, two years later, there's 5, or 6, or maybe 8 depending on the day and how you count implementations. And as of yesterday, JRuby and C Ruby are joined by Rubinius in being able to route basic Rails the other implementations are most certainly snapping at our heels now. They're going to move fast. It may take some time, but they're going to start presenting compatibility and performance milestones comparable to JRuby. Already, Chad Fowler of the Ruby community has chosen his horse and claimed that within a year or two Rubinius will be on its way to becoming the "de facto standard" Ruby implementation. Others have put their bets on Rubinius or Gemstone's MagLev. Everyone has a favorite contender in the Ruby implementation arena. Whither JRuby among this crop of promising upstarts?

So it makes me think. Here I sit, on a Saturday night which could be a relaxing evening at home. It's a nice warm night in Minnesota. There's a few good movies on TV. I've got a couple nice beers in the fridge.

But I'm here writing a blog post and considering what next major enhancement to make to JRuby. Why am I doing this? Why do I labor day and night to improve JRuby, or push JVM languages forward, or try to show people why the JVM is such an awesome platform to target? Why suffer under the pain of a two-front battle to keep JRuby relevant?

"I expected better from you."

Kelly's words still ring in my ears. What is better? Is better making a great Ruby implementation that runs on the JVM and solves most of the scaling and "enterprisey" problems with the original? Perhaps success is bringing an off-JVM language to the JVM, and arguably making it the *best* choice for a large subset of users? Does better mean constantly chasing a dream of staying on top and fighting performance and compatibility wars and looking out for number 2 until the end of days?

I think there's something missing here.

The Ruby Side

Chad claims that Rubinius will be the de facto standard Ruby implementation in a year or two. Of course he's totally a year or two things are going to be just as fucked up and confusing as they are now, but they'll be fucked up and confusing in altogether different ways.

JRuby will by then be convincingly the fastest way to run Ruby webapps either buoyed by continuing JRuby performance work, Rails multithreading enhancements, a new JVM version, or a crop of new web frameworks with Merb leading the way. And probably a majority of Rubyists (including several key "thought leaders" in the Ruby community) still won't care because they've always wanted Ruby to "kill Java" in some way. Poor guys...prejudiced and short-sighted.

Rubinius will be running Rails well enough to do production deployment, but without multithreading, memory reductions, or performance improvements it won't present a much more compelling story than MRI. Of course, it's probably going to receive most of those improvements during the year, and with five or six full-time folks working on it it's not infeasible for it to be better than MRI for Rails deployments by then.

IronRuby might be running Rails, might even be running it well, but will probably be getting most of its press running some proprietary Microsoft RIA or MVC framework. John Lam will still be fighting the good fight to make MS an Open Source company...and maybe even succeeding.

MacRuby will be released, probably in an official OS X release, and folks will be using it for various awesome mostly-GUI apps...but it probably won't be a substantial contender in the Ruby web arena.

Ruby 1.9.x will be more stable than today, but not enough of an improvement for most people to move off the 1.8 line; people will be waiting for the mythical Ruby 2.0 that brings all the promised features left out of 1.9.

MagLev will be bringing Avi Bryant's dream of Ruby on Smalltalk true, maybe even running Rails and other web frameworks. And...well, nobody will really want to pay for it, even if it can be ten times faster and has the best persistence architecture in the world.

What will I be doing?

I don't expect I'll spend the next five years working on JRuby. I don't necessarily expect I'll spend the next year working on JRuby. There's too much else out there.

...And Beyond

With JRuby, we've shown it's possible to bring a language, a set of libraries, and popular frameworks from another world onto the JVM and make them run even better. We've shown that there's real value in pushing the multilanguage JVM meme over "One Java to Rule Them All". Never before has there been such support for polyglots. Job postings once again list three or four or five languages they'd like candidates to know. Libraries and frameworks boast support for Groovy, JRuby, Jython as part of their feature list. Real money is being spent to turn the existing OpenJDK into a dynamic language powerhouse, led by efforts like the Da Vinci Machine, JRuby, and Groovy. And new static-typed languages like Scala are showing where the Java language needs to evolve (or not evolve) into the future. Ruby is just one part of a great new adventure.

I want to be a part of that. A year ago I started up the JVM Languages Google group to bring JVM language implementers together, and it's been a great success. You can post a question about polymorphic inline caches one day and read about call frame reification or compiler strategies the next. The Da Vinci Machine project, led by John Rose, has started to incorporate all those crazy features we dynlang implementers have really wanted into OpenJDK. Projects like the Maxine VM are starting to show that self-hosting works just as well (or even better) with Java and the JVM than other languages and platforms. These are exciting times.

No, dear readers, I don't mean to say I won't be working on JRuby. JRuby is the gateway drug for me into many different arenas of software. I've learned more about languages and compilers and parsers and VMs and runtimes and libraries and unicode and so on from working on JRuby than I ever learned from any of my jobs. My work on JRuby will continue long into the future.

But it's time to look to bigger things. JRuby has been successful not because of what magic Tom or I or anyone else were able to has been successful because of the JVM, that fantastic piece of engineering that enables top-notch implementations of dozens of languages already. But it's too hard to make languages run well on the JVM right now, and I'll attest to that. We need to make it easier to get languages performing on the JVM. We need to make it easier to build tools for them. In short, we need to open the JVM up to a much larger audience that might have written Java off as a dead technology. And we need your help.

The Road To Babel

So I'm publicly announcing that we at Sun are hosting a JVM Language Summit. It's long overdue in my opinion...we should have been having these events ten years ago. But it's happening now. We're calling all language and VM implementers to come talk about their projects. It doesn't have to be something running on the JVM...we want very much to hear from folks on the Rubinius project, Parrot project, LLVM project, CLR and DLR projects, and any other language and runtime you can think of. This is the chance to get together with a group of your peers to discuss topics you can usually only explore over email or IRC. It's your chance to say what you want the JVM to do for you...or else to say why your platform does it better. It's a meeting of the minds...a first step toward building more open platforms, better runtimes, and completely Free software stacks that all languages can take advantage of.

And this is just the first step. Over the next year, I'm going to be actively working with others in the JVM Languages community to build out a library of tools and frameworks we can all use to better our implementations. That process has already started...Attila Szgedi has been working on a standard MetaObject protocol for the JVM. John Rose has been working on the DVM and its set of dynlang features. I've been working on various backports of those features and similar libraries for JRuby. The Groovy guys have been working on code-generated call site optimizations. The list of independent projects goes on and on, and now we need to bring these efforts together.

I did a talk at CommunityOne this year about "Bringing the JVM Language Implementers Together", and I really meant it. It's happening right now, and it's about time. It's bigger than Ruby, bigger than Groovy, bigger than any one project for sure. It's about a real platform for real users, users that have different tastes and want different tools for the job. It's about you and those projects you might have put aside. It's about those biases you might have against anything Java-related, as though somehow any project with Java involved is an automatic FAIL. Of course you know it's foolish, but old habits die hard. It's time for you to get involved. It's time for you to cast off those prejudices and help push this platform in the right direction. And I'm going to be here to help...I really want this to happen. But it depends on you. Are you up to the challenge?

"I expected better from you."

No doubt. We should all be doing better. And this is your chance.


  1. Really great post, motivated me to start doing some work on my thesis again

  2. marc: Excellent...I'd be interested in hearing about your thesis.

    paul: The JVM Language Summit is definitely inspired by the Lang.NET symposium; John Rose, Brian Goetz and myself were all there. Of course there have been other, smaller, unofficial meetings like this, but we realized it's time to do it up right after attending Microsoft's event. Our language community is already significantly larger, so I think it's going to be a great time.

    blackdog: I think attitudes toward Sun and Java are finally starting to change. It's a slow process.

  3. Great post. Two things I'd love to see come out of this summit/bring-em-together effort, one small, one large: a super-console for working with JVM languages, and a JVM Languages Cookbook, bringing together all of the techniques, patterns and approaches people have learned about over the last 12+ years. MS can, in the medium or long term, replicate the optimizations that exist in the JVM on their own platform, but what they can't make up for is lost time--people have been experimenting with porting languages or writing new ones on the JVM for a long time, and there's a wealth of knowledge to be mined there.

    Glad to see you open to many languages and not being focused only on JRuby. Good work! Again, I'd like to see lesser-known and less popular languages continue to be brought into the fold, so keep up the positive and welcoming attitude.

    Cheers Patrick

  4. Charles,

    Thanks for this post. I think it will find enduring value as an inspirational piece that will remind competent developers not to give in to temporary career missteps and find truly nourishing work.

  5. Fantastic post Charlie. I'm trying to expect better from myself, but it's tough. Keep it up. I know what you mean about implementing a language teaching you lots; I had a little dabble with Jython last year and discovered that Unicode can be quite fascinating!

  6. Very cool. Any chance you guys can discuss moving from "javac" (a Java compiler) to "jvmc" (a JVM compiler), so that we can mix 'n match languages within projects?

  7. Very nice and motivating story, thanks!


  8. I think you are getting philosophical